For some owners and dogs, Bonfire Night and the whole of firework season is a huge source of tension and stress. Dogs suddenly become a shell of their normal selves and owners are constantly on edge, worried about their pet’s wellbeing.
Of course, not every dog will be fearful of the loud bangs and shrill screeches but a large number are. In fact, up to 17-49%* of dogs can have a noise phobia. A dog’s fear may be obvious, though some of the more subtle signs can be easily overlooked.
While canine anxiety isn’t an easy issue to tackle, there are plenty of things we can do. Addressing the issue is something that can be done alongside your vet and a canine behaviourist. Patience is key as this is not something that resolves over night.
This is a good question. What is it that sets some dogs on edge while others sit calmly by, bang after bang?
For certain breeds, their genetics are sure to play a role. Gun dogs that are used to being close to loud explosions are less commonly affected than other breeds. One Norwegian study showed that the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier and Lagotto Romagnolo were the most likely to have a noise sensitivity. Spaniels tend to be under-represented.
A dog’s early experiences can shape them. If they have had lots of positive experiences exposing them to loud noises and fireworks from a young age, they are more likely to be tolerant of them when older.
Anxiety prone dogs, for example, those who already have separation anxiety and a fear of new places, tend to be more affected. Conversely, confident dogs who are social and cope well in other situations are far less likely to be worried around fireworks.
Signs of a noise phobia will vary from individual to individual and can include:
Signs may seem to start before you hear a noise, as dogs have such good hearing that they often pick up on noises before we do. They can go on for long after the fireworks have stopped, as your dog’s stress hormone levels remain high.
When possible, we should try to help alleviate our dog’s concerns before fireworks season comes around. This can be done via desensitisation; exposing your dog to firework noises on a video and making it a positive experience. Start by keeping the volume low and rewarding calm behaviour with vocal praise, strokes and tempting treats. You can even play a short game of tug with your dog, if this is something they find enjoyable (rather than over-stimulating). Over time, increase the volume and frequency of the noise, ensuring your dog stays tolerant and relaxed. This process can take weeks or even months.
When fireworks start, be cautious not to act unsettled yourself. Dog’s quickly pick up on our body language and stress levels and may become upset if you are anxious. Act calm and confident and try not to fuss them too much.
Create a safe haven. This can be a cosy den in the middle of the home away from windows. Keep curtains closed and provide lots of blankets for your dog to bury under. Have the TV or radio on in an attempt to drown out sounds. Your dog may appreciate a nice chew or a filled Kong while they settle down for the night.
Tire your dog out before daylight fades. This may mean a long and interesting hike and some socialising with other pooches. Of course, be sure your dog is safely indoors long before any fireworks start.
Thankfully, there are now a range of products available that can help keep your dog calm and minimise their stress levels.
Where you are in the world determines when you are most likely to hear fireworks. It seems, in the UK at least, that firework season has been getting longer and longer.
You are most likely to hear fireworks on:
Of course, fireworks alone are not the only stressors your dog will face in life. Calming supplements, foods and treats are also useful for those who have separation anxiety, storm phobias and fear of people or other animals.
The key is in identifying that your dog is distressed, determining why that is and formulating a plan. Remember, you are not alone and many dogs suffer from anxiety at some point in their lives. Your vet will be happy to work with you, and help you come up with a long-term solution to minimise anxiety.
*Blackwell EJ, Bradshaw JW, Casey RA. Fear responses to noises in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear related behaviors. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2013; 145:15-25.